Some parts (likely most parts) of government continue to work well – for example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO has published its 12thannual “quick look”(which is darned thorough) at the status of NASA’s major projects.
According to the report, NASA “is planning to invest at least $65 billion over the life cycle of its current portfolio of 25 major projects, which we define as those projects or programs that have a life cycle cost of over $250 million.” GAO has been doing these annual reports since 2009, at the direction of Congress, “to assess the cost and schedule performance, technology maturity and design stability” of these projects.
NASA’s most expensive projects are, on the science side, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and, on the human space flight side, the Space Launch System/Orion projects. The latter are critical elements of NASA’s plan to send people back to the Moon by 2024 – a goal I believe to be unachievable, and also of little to no public value.
GAO notes, “Prior to being approved for development, cost estimates for JWST ranged from $1 billion to $3.5 billion, with expected launch dates ranging from 2007 to 2011…. Now estimated at $9.7 billion, the project’s costs have increased by 95 percent” – 95 percent! – “and its launch date has been delayed by over 6.5 years since its cost and schedule baselines were [re]established in 2009.”
NASA itself says it has only a 12 percent chance of meeting its current planned JWST launch date of March 2021.
The next big NASA planetary science mission up for launch is Mars 2020. GAO reports, “The Mars 2020 project has encountered development cost growth of almost $360 million, which exceeds the 15 percent congressional notification threshold at a critical point in the development process when problems are most commonly found and schedules tend to slip. This cost growth was due to multiple development difficulties, delayed deliveries, and higher than anticipated procurement costs.” The cost of formulation, development, and operation of Mars 2020 appears to be close to $3 billion.
Meanwhile, NASA and the European Space Agency are proceeding with plans for a joint Mars sample return mission, with dual launches proposed for 2026. I can’t find any information from either agency right now about cost estimates for this mission, but certainly it will be a multi-billion-dollar endeavor.
This mission is designed to collect samples from the martian surface that will have been cached – if all goes well – by the Mars 2020 rover. It will be extremely complex – I’ve read the phase-2 report of the International Mars Architecture for the Return of Samples (MARS) Working Group, published in the journal Astrobiology in April 2018. The plan outlined in this report looks solid – but, again, it’s extremely complex. Hence, expensive.
The reason why a Mars sample return mission has been a top priority and, thus far, mission impossible since the late 1970s is that, while the space community has known how to do it, it has not known how to do it affordably. I expect that the current NASA-ESA mission plan will end up costing more and taking longer than the agencies now anticipate.
See my report on cost and schedule escalation for NASA’s Viking mission to Mars – while the mission was completed, and was successful, management and budget problems plagued the project from Day One and the duration.
Over the next year, nations around the world will need to start rebuilding their economies. In the U.S., where I live, I believe the government should create something akin to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, putting people back to work to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and reinforce our public-health system. The WPA was only one of FDR’s New Deal programs, which revived the U.S. economy, created jobs, and provided security to citizens. We’ll need to do it again.
Don’t get me wrong. I love space science and believe it’s important for us to continuing exploring space. But right now, I don’t think space exploration advocates should be lobbying for more money for space exploration. And definitely not with humans. Human exploration is too expensive. And what’s the point?
Finally, I want to note that Cristina Chaplain, GAO’s director of contracting and national security acquisitions, is retiring. Chaplain has led the team that has been producing GAO’s excellent reports on NASA activities. She and her team have been doing a great job, and her retirement will be a loss for government accountability. I wish her successors the best of luck.